A plan to bring bus rapid transit (BRT) to southern Miami-Dade County has hit an unexpected roadblock: Local leaders are demanding light rail instead. The Miami Herald reports that leaders in Homestead, Palmetto Bay and three other suburban cities are refusing to support the county pursuing federal funding for BRT unless officials agree that all improvements also serve the goal of rail in the near future. They want county officials to make good on a reneged 2002 promise to extend Metrorail along the South Dade Busway, a 20-mile stretch of dedicated highway for buses running to Florida City, which is about 33 miles south of Miami.
“Unless you’re talking about light rail, don’t bother coming to South Dade talking about bigger buses,” Kionne McGhee, a state representative leading the charge, told the Herald. “There’s not a single pastor, a single mayor, a single city council member who is asking for bus. They’re all asking for rail.”
A draft of the four-page deal proposed by local leaders requires that the Busway be renamed the Transitway, that county transportation officials persuade the Metropolitan Planning Organization to fund a study on light rail in southern Miami-Dade, and that new BRT stations be designed to accommodate a future rail line. Under the deal, federal grant money couldn’t even be used to buy new buses. “Everything they spend on the bus line needs to be reusable for light rail,” said Edward Silva, manager of Palmetto Bay.
If the county agrees, local officials will provide endorsements for the county’s application for a competitive $30 million federal bus grant.
The decision to pursue BRT in southern Miami-Dade came after the Metropolitan Planning Organization released a study in January recommending that the Busway would be the best place to try such a system. Supporters say people who have never used BRT will be pleasantly surprised at its efficiency. They also point to the price tag. Upgrading service along the Busway to BRT would cost about $115 million, compared to $1.5 billion for a light-rail system on the same route. BRT would cost an estimated $21 million per year to run, compared to $46 million for light rail.
On the other hand, the study forecasts that 2.5 million additional commuters would utilize the Busway with a light-rail system, compared to only 1.6 million with BRT. “People don’t like to take buses,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who supports a major light-rail expansion in the county. “Unless they have no alternative.”
Miami-Dade voters approved a transit tax in 2002 to fund a promised expansion of Metrorail throughout the county, including to Florida City, which would be served by the BRT or light-rail line. But almost all of the plan was ultimately scrapped, save for a two-mile extension to Miami International Airport completed in 2012.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.